The first trailer for Zhang Yimou’s latest flick The Great Wall is out, and the name of Matt Damon is already being questioned against what the people built up as one of mankind’s greatest wonders for 1700 years. Importantly, that is the only name of an actor appearing in the middle of the action.
Popular actor Matt Damon appears as the star of the movie set during the time of Northern Song Dynasty (959 MCE-1156 MCE). Before asking what white American males might be doing there strutting about (because he is not the only one) let us recap instances of films garnering similar press.
Within the last few years there is the entire cast of Gods of Egypt being white, Rooney Mara as the Amerindian Tiger Lily in Pan, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in the film remake of Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell, and finally Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Damon’s casting, which may achieve criticism after a viewing of the trailer (also having, of course, dragons), reminds us of something said by director Ridley Scott, who made a film like Alien way back in 1979, during the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings in 2014.
Responding to a ban called by some Twitter users because of the very white Christian Bale being cast as the central Asian Moses, Scott had come up with this enlightening argument that he would not have got financed if he had cast some Mohammad from some Middle-Eastern city as his lead.
As Forbes’ Scott Mendelson pointed out, even if the lead had been cast white considering the marketing constraints, it in no way excuses the rest of the main cast being Caucasian actors as well.
Zhang Yimou is a leading member of the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema and is supposedly the go-to guy when one wants to make an internationally popular Chinese movie. Besides commercially successful films in America like Hero and The House of the Flying Daggers, he has made indie films like Raise the Red Lantern.
With an estimated budget of $140m, The Great Wall is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and in his defense, Yimou stated that for the first time a film so deeply rooted in Chinese culture and having one of the largest Chinese casts had been made for a global audience.
According to him, the film is not about the construction of The Great Wall and Damon is not supposed to be ethnically Chinese. The introduction of Damon’s character into the film is supposed to be a major plot-point, and Damon is just one of the five major heroes in the story, the rest being Chinese.
He also claimed that he would never cast anyone for any reason that would jeopardize his vision as an artist and a director. The film is set for release in February 2017.
How strong this is as an excuse, considering Damon’s heroic portrayal in the movie, is up for debate, though. 30-year-old Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu, famous for her role in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, specifically pointed out such portrayals in a lengthy tweet she made last Friday.
In the tweet, she wrote that people needed to stop perpetuating the myth that only white men could redeem. The people of color were very proud of their own culture, heritage, and their own strength. They did not need to be rescued by the white man, often through larger-than-life heroes like Damon’s character.